WASHINGTON – A Senate panel advanced a bill Thursday to curb the Justice Department's power to replace federal prosecutors indefinitely, after seven forced resignations sparked accusations of political favoritism.
The Judiciary Committee voted 13-6 to send the measure to the Senate floor, where Democratic officials planned to bring it to a vote quickly. Three Republicans, Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, joined all the panel's Democrats in backing the bill.
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and may be dismissed for any reason, or no reason at all. It's the process of replacement that, the bill's proponents argue, should prevent political cronyism.
Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the measure would strip a provision in the antiterror Patriot Act that gave the attorney general new power to fire U.S. attorneys and replace them indefinitely, avoiding the Senate confirmation process.
Feinstein's bill would allow the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for 120 days. If after that time the president has not sent up a nominee to the Senate and had that nominee confirmed, then the authority to appoint an interim U.S. Attorney would fall to the district court, according to Feinstein's office.
The bill would apply to any interim U.S. attorneys who have not received confirmation, including those appointed to replace the seven prosecutors who have been fired since the Patriot Act reauthoriztion went into effect, according to a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Senate Democrats accuse the administration of slipping the provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization that took effect last March with the intent of circumventing the Senate confirmation process and rewarding political allies. Specter, who wrote the reauthorization as chairman of the committee, says he was unaware of that provision and opposes it.
They cite the firings since March of seven U.S. attorneys from Arkansas to California, some without cause, as evidence that the administration is punishing prosecutors whose work targeted Republican allies and rewarding those faithful to the GOP.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has staunchly denied that charge and promised to submit every replacement for Senate confirmation. He has said district court judges are sometimes not qualified to appoint federal prosecutors.
Earlier this week, his deputy, Paul McNulty, told the panel that some of the ousted prosecutors were fired for performance-related causes he would not describe, while others were asked to leave without cause.
Democrats pounced, demanding the performance reports of all seven dismissed prosecutors and threatening to subpoena them. McNulty cautioned that the reports might not detail any reasons for dismissal.
The panel's action came a day after one of those fired, former U.S. Attorney John McKay of Washington state, said his resignation was ordered by the Bush administration without explanation seven months after he received a favorable job evaluation.
"I was ordered to resign as U.S. attorney on Dec. 7 by the Justice Department," McKay, who led the Justice Department's Western Washington office, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "I was given no explanation. I certainly was told of no performance issues."
The Seattle Times reported Thursday that in his last performance review, McKay received a highly favorable report from a 27-member team from the Justice Department's Evaluation and Review Staff.